Jurgen Klopp’s “mentality monsters" are at it again. That is how the Liverpool manager described his players at the back end of last season and that is how they continue to play.
On Saturday, the Reds maintained their perfect start to the league season in the most imperfect of ways: by beating Leicester City 2-1 at Anfield via James Milner's stoppage-time penalty after James Maddison’s 80th-minute goal had cancelled out Sadio Mane’s first-half opener.
It is eight wins out of eight for Liverpool in the Premier League this season and 17 straight league wins stretching back to last season. This is a remarkable run of form. It is almost unheard of: the Reds are just one short of the record held by Manchester City (18 straight league wins).
That Liverpool felt like an inch away from ‘failure’ is a reflection of the standards being set at the club today, which are its highest in over three decades. Failure? A 1-1 draw against the league's third-placed team and one that is being billed to challenge for the top four positions?
Liverpool's new normal is outrageously abnormal. Like the abnormal of a Pep Guardiola team relentless in its pursuit of excellence. Or more like the abnormal of a Sir Alex Ferguson side that was both brilliant and plucky in just the right amounts.
Against Leicester, Liverpool were brilliant for the majority of the game and plucky, when required, on the home stretch. Klopp's men were worthy of three points. This wasn't Liverpool grinding out a win after the team had not played well. This was the Reds marching on in the face of disappointment and grabbing a win they fully deserved.
Liverpool outplayed the away team by a long margin. Leicester registered no shots on goal in the first half (one headed chance was offside) and only two in the entire game, one of which was the equaliser scored by Maddison in the 80th minute. Liverpool, in contrast, had 18 shots on goal.
‘Shots’ statistic, though, does not give you the full picture, since it gives equal importance to an attempt on goal from the halfway line and one from two yards. Instead, the modern Expected Goals (xG) statistic that takes into account the quality of chances serves as a better indicator.
As per infogol, Liverpool's xG was 3.51 and Leicester's was 0.1 – the lowest of any team the Merseyside club has faced this season. It suggests that the scoreline should have been 3-0 or 4-0 in favour of Klopp’s men, who were excellent at creating chances but poor at converting them.
Trent Alexander-Arnold’s brilliance was on show early on. He has been Liverpool's chief outlet for creating chances. Two of his crosses nearly led to the opening goal: Milner shot over from nine yards and Roberto Firmino was only inches away from converting from six yards out.
Klopp had started with a strategy different from his usual one. Mane was positioned on the right wing which is usually occupied by Salah, who was placed in the centre, while Firmino drifted towards the left. This was to ensure there was defensive cover for the threat of Leicester left-back Ben Chilwell, especially with Dejan Lovren, the fourth choice centre-back, making his first league start of the season.
It was a decision that paid off. Mane made two excellent tackles in Liverpool's own half – he also made the most overall (four) – and combined well with Alexander-Arnold to snuff out Chilwell's threat.
When Mane temporarily reverted to his usual left-sided position, he gave Liverpool the lead. Milner's assist to him was inch perfect: his left-footed through ball down the left flank cut Leicester open and presented the Senegalese forward with a one-on-one chance, which he duly converted.
It was Mane's 50th Premier League goal for Liverpool. With Salah struggling to find his scoring touch and Firmino not renowned for his scoring feats, Mane has become Klopp’s most important asset. Which is life coming a full circle for the duo: Mane was the star of Klopp’s first proper Liverpool team in 2016.
This was also a goal which summed up the current Liverpool squad. It was created masterfully by Milner, one of two names on the team sheet that were identified as potential weak links. The other being Lovren. But both were almost impeccable in their performances, a great sign for a squad that will require heavy rotation throughout the season.
Mane had two further chances either side of half time to double Liverpool's lead. He shot straight at the 'keeper when Firmino squared to him from the left and shot wide after a sumptuous (though fortuitous) one-two with Salah. Firmino too dragged a shot wide of goal, while left-back Andy Robertson smashed a good chance straight at opposition goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.
Liverpool were wasteful in the final third, misplacing the final pass several times and passing up chances to settle the game. Leicester sensed an opportunity and gradually became stronger.
First, Jamie Vardy found himself through on goal but messed up his first touch. Then, Dennis Praet's low drive from a distance missed by a whisker – this was the away side's first shot on goal although Vardy's chance was clearer. Finally, Maddison, put through beautifully by Ayoze Perez, slotted in the equaliser.
There have been question marks over Liverpool's defence this season and the Leicester game just added another one. The security of last season has been missing. Liverpool have only kept two clean sheets in the league, one of which was a highly fortuitous one at Sheffield United. In the Champions League last Wednesday, the Reds let in three goals in less than 20 minutes – which is the kind of collapse you would have thought would no longer happen under Klopp.
What isn’t a question mark, though, is this team’s resilience. Mane earned Liverpool a soft penalty in the dying moments of the game. He was fouled from behind by Marc Albrighton and fell to the ground to draw attention to the foul. Milner converted. “Liverpool seem to have all the answers at the moment,” the commentator summed up as Anfield erupted with joy.
This is a team that does not know when it is beaten. It has a forward line that isn’t firing on all cylinders and a defence that isn’t as steady as you would want it to be. But this is a team with the experience of a title race and a master’s degree in getting things done.
And it sits nicely atop the standings dreaming, again, of securing the club's first Premier League trophy.
Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.
Updated Date: Oct 06, 2019 13:06:16 IST